Free from Fear
Take simple steps to help children deal with fears, and protect them from developing full-fledged phobias later in life.
- Acknowledge feelings. Regardless of how trivial the fear may seem to you, it is a real concern for children. Encourage children to talk openly about their anxieties.
- Do not ridicule your child with statements like, “Don’t be silly! There is no such thing as monsters!” This may stop children from communicating about their fears, but it will not alleviate the fear itself.
- Don’t encourage fearful reactions. For example, if children are afraid of dogs, do not purposely cross the street to avoid a dog. This will reinforce the idea that dogs should be feared and avoided. Instead, help guide children gently as you approach the dog together carefully.
- Teach children to describe the intensity of fear on a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being the strongest. By comparing fear levels before and after a stressful situation, you can point out that the intensity of the fear decreased over time.
- Teach specific strategies for overcoming fear:
- Encourage your child to approach the feared object or situation (e.g., new playgroup or preschool), and then safely return to you as a home base before venturing out again.
- Teach positive credos, such as “I think I can” and “I am safe,” which your child can repeat independently when feeling anxious.
- Even preschoolers can learn simple relaxation techniques. Help them visualize floating on a cloud while engaging in deep breathing. Teach them to focus on the sound of their breath slipping in and out or to blow air softly to draw their attention inward.
- Teach them to pray, “Dear God, Thank you for keeping me safe.”
Help children cope with difficult situations and enable them to explore their world without fear.
Helping Your Child Feel Safe in a Scary World
Despite our best efforts to shield children from gruesome television coverage, they inevitably hear bits and pieces about the dangers in our society today. As parents, we struggle to reach the balance between educating our children to protect them, and maintaining their innocent joy of life.
Help your preschooler feel safe in a scary world by following these simple strategies.
- Establish a Secret Password with your child. If your child needs to leave a setting with another adult, insist that the adult know the password. This will help your child realize that there are some adults he can trust and situations where he can feel safe, while also taking real steps to protect himself.
- Identify Safe Strangers such as police officers, teachers, mothers with children, and store clerks. When in public places, help your child locate these community helpers in case of emergency.
- Also discuss Stranger Danger, stressing that some people in the community are helpers but that we should never leave with anyone who doesn’t know the password.
- Teach your child that if he becomes lost, he should Stop and Shout as loudly as he can, “I’m lost.” When help arrives, reinforce that he should not leave with the person unless they know the password.
- Teach 911 Emergency Skills. Role-play various scenarios with your child to teach him how to call 911. Be sure he can identify his name, address, and/or location. Help him search for identifiable landmarks (e.g., big buildings, signs, mountains).
Finally, never advertise your child’s name on his clothing. Encourage your child not to keep secrets from you, and reinforce your child’s ability to follow his gut instinct.
By teaching children strategies to stay safe, we can acknowledge their fears, boost their confidence, and make the world a little less scary.
Helping Children Overcome Fear
When children reach the preschool years, they begin to develop fears. They understand the potential of danger and may face serious anxiety issues. One of the most common fears for children is darkness.
If your child is afraid of the dark, take a Light vs. Night Tour of your home. First, survey one room with your child, pointing out the familiar objects in the room. Then, turn off the lights and discuss how those objects look different, even scary, in the dark. The lamp may look more like a person’s head. The dresser may resemble a big monster. Then, turn the lights on again and prove that things that seemed frightening in the dark were actually familiar objects we see everyday.
Continue this tour through each room of your house. Try to find humor when things look funny in the dark, but be careful not to make your child feel ashamed of his fears. Talk honestly about how you were afraid of the dark when you were young and how you also have nightmares sometimes.
Discuss ways to turn scary thoughts into happy thoughts. Make a Happy Thought Journal by recording all the happy things you and your child can list (e.g., cupcakes, kittens). Encourage your child to illustrate the journal. Teach your child that if the bad thoughts come back, he can push them out of his mind by filling his head with the happy thoughts you shared.
Each night, share a few of these happy thoughts. Then give your child a Dream Thought, leaving him with one big idea for sweet dreams, (“You are riding a horse in the sky to pick ice cream cones from purple trees.”)
With a little patience and understanding, your child can learn practical strategies such as these to defeat his worst fears.
Our first priority is to keep our children safe. We secure our preschoolers in carseats, strap on safety helmets as they totter along on bikes, and double check the doors before we turn in for the night. But sometimes, our efforts to shield our children from the dangers of the world can actually do more harm than good. This is the case for overprotective parents.
When your preschooler plays at the park, do you:
a.) Slide down with him, put on his helmet before he boards the swing, and spray him with Germ-X ® ?
b.) Leave him to play on his own, as you chat on your cell phone assuming that he’ll be fine?
c.) Interact with him, carefully monitoring his safety while giving him room to explore age-appropriate play structures independently?
Hopefully, you answered C. It is natural for us to want our children to avoid any risk of danger, but the truth is that we must do our best to protect them while allowing them to tackle challenges on their own.
- Avoid projecting fears onto children. By expressing constant worry about what might go wrong, we teach children to fear the world.
- Follow our child’s lead. Most children have a good sense of their own physical abilities. If we give them room to explore, they will request our assistance when needed.
- Encourage children to try new things. We can’t be afraid to take off the training wheels. Of course we take precautions; but after we provide a protective helmet and find a flat, traffic free area to practice, we must learn to let go.
In the end, children’s self-esteem will flourish when they gain independence, and we will have done a better job as parents by teaching them to love, not fear, their world.
How Nighttime Rituals Help
As parents, we can take advantage of the time we have with our children at the end of every day, by using nightly routines to raise happier, well-rested kids. Studies also show that families who establish such rituals can build stronger family bonds.
Transition Time – Point out that it is nighttime (showing the moon and stars). Say, “It’s almost rest time.” Then, offer your child a warm bath or quiet playtime. During this time, sing soothing songs, play finger-movement games, and engage in positive interactions that slow the pace of the day and offer your child undivided attention.
Night Jobs – Sometimes, the most routine behaviors can be the most loving. Help your child dress in pajamas, brush his hair and teeth, and select story books (plus a spill-proof cup of water, a special blanket, and a menagerie of beloved stuffed animal friends or dolls.)
Most parents have already discovered the power of Storytime, but many children would draw this activity out into the wee hours of the morning, if allowed. Therefore, it is important to designate a set number of books or period of time to keep this cherished ritual argument free.
Snuggling during Storytime can also strengthen family connections. Additionally, some families share “Happy Thoughts.” Always end your family’s day by counting your many blessings.
Lights Out – By keeping a consistent time for lights out, your child can better tune his body to the patterned rituals of wake versus sleep. Be sure to leave a nightlight available for security, and try to tone down the sounds and movements throughout the rest of the house as well.
A soothing routine can help all family members wind down after a stressful day, build stronger family bonds, and ease the transition for everyone to fall into a restful night’s sleep.
Establishing Healthful Sleeping Habits
Sleep is an important part of healthy living for children and adults alike. In fact, proper nutrition, exercise, and rest all contribute to better brain function.
Children between the ages of two and four years of age need about 11 hours of sleep a night, in addition to a one to three hour nap each afternoon. If your preschooler is having trouble getting the rest she needs, try these techniques to establish healthful sleep habits.
- Stick to a set bedtime (ideally 7:30 pm). Staying up too late or keeping inconsistent bedtimes will make it harder for an overtired preschooler to fall asleep.
- Keep a nighttime ritual or routine to remove stress from bedtime duties.
- Often, preschoolers’ sleep patterns become disrupted when they make the change from crib to bed. Help ease this transition by keeping the same routine and using motivational rewards such as verbal praise or stickers.
It is important to allow young children to take afternoon naps in order to provide adequate rest for developing minds. But eventually, your preschooler may protest nap time completely. If your child is consistently restless at naptime, no longer has late afternoon “meltdowns” when she misses her nap, or resists going to sleep at his regular nightly bedtime when she does nap, then she may be ready to stop napping.
One way to help your child transition out of daily naptimes is to encourage naps only several times a week. It is also important to allow non-napping preschoolers to have down time by scheduling “quiet time” each afternoon. During this time, your child should listen to soothing music, read books, or engage in quiet art activities to allow for peaceful rejuvenation periods each day.
Remember, while each individual child is unique, we all benefit from having healthful sleep habits.